Yesterday’s Independence Day celebrations here in the United States have me thinking about freedom and its many forms. In that context I can’t help but think of one of my favorite books, While Still We Live, written by Helen MacInnes. The phrase is taken from the first lines of the national anthem of Poland. I recently loaned the book out, so I don’t have it in front of me as I write this, and I can see from various English translations online that the exact words vary from one to another, but my memory of the full sentence as quoted in the book is “Poland has not yet perished, while still we live.”
Although I have always respected the author’s penchant for detailed research, I used to wonder whether her fictional account of the highly organized Polish resistance was true or exaggerated. I wonder no longer. I recently read another book on the Polish resistance, this one a work of creative nonfiction. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman, showed me that the resistance description in While Still We Live was no exaggeration and may have even been understated. I know from other readings that the underground schools and universities run by Polish citizens during World War II are not the main story; they are an echo of the underground Polish-language schools that were operated during a time when Poland was partitioned among other countries and did not exist separately. The Polish people have gone to incredible and wonderful lengths over the centuries to hold onto their language, their identity and as many little pieces of freedom as possible.
Peru, the land of my birth, celebrates its independence on July 28. Its national anthem is titled “Somos Libres” (“We Are Free”) and my rough English translation of the first few lines is “We are free, let us always be so. Let the sun darken its lights before we deny the solemn vow....” Yet in many ways the indigenous peoples of Peru and other Latin American countries are still fighting what they consider to be a 500-year occupation by the enemy.
I remember sitting in a relative’s living room during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and watching in shock as a newspaper reporter said it was “scary” that the freedom fighters would rather die than submit to the invasion. She was obviously not prepared for that assignment, as she had forgotten our own country’s heritage and its obsession with individual freedoms. The fact that those very freedom fighters may turn out to be people who deny others their freedom (and this can apply to any country at some point in its history) does not diminish the value of freedom itself. It does, however, remind me of the responsibility we have to pass freedom on.
This morning in church I joined the rest of the congregation in singing “America the Beautiful.” Over the years I have begun to have serious difficulties with one verse. Something to do with “...pilgrim feet whose stern impassioned stress a thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness.” Half the time I don’t sing it. I keep looking for another interpretation, but all I can think of are the lives we walked over on that voyage, for that “wilderness” was not uninhabited.
In my study I have a postcard bearing a picture of a young man. His hair is long; part of it is pulled back into braids at the top, but most of it hangs loose. Around his neck he wears two types of crosses on a necklace of bone and beads. He wears hoop earrings. He has a blanket or shawl draped loosely around his shoulders, over a shirt or robe. To me he is beautiful, not so much for any special physical attribute but because he looks so completely himself in that moment. He is Navajo, and the photograph printed on the postcard is the “before” picture taken on his enrollment into an industrial school for Native American students. Before his haircut, before the banning of his native dress, before, I imagine, the prohibition against speaking his own language. I keep the picture to remind myself of what we sometimes do to the freedoms of others while trying to protect our own.
Along with many others in this country I can say that generation after generation of my family has fought for its freedom and the freedoms of others. But what I have to add is that the fight for freedom is not confined to a military legacy. Those who contribute to better environmental quality, literacy levels, voting rights education, the fight against hunger, the safety of children, adequate medical care and similar elements of human society are adding to our freedoms in a fundamental way. May we continue to fight for these freedoms while still we live.